In Praise of Imitation

Imitation is discovery.
Imitation is discovery. // Karen Tian

In two weeks, I’ll hit the obscure, awkward age of 19 — a little above adult, a step below maturity — and yet, I’ll have lived 19 times, at least, died 19 times, at least, to feel a bit above the whole birthday hoopla. As my pocketbook Hinduism would have it, reincarnation is what happens when our soul moves through desire, cycling from fantasies of fame, fortune and power to love and goodness and eventually nothingness. And so, I guess you can say I’ve tumbled through the cosmic washing machine, as we all have, reincarnating in my miniature way from Oral Stage to Anal Stage to Phallic Stage or what have you. The photo albums bear witness: I’ve changed, though not so much from rock to tree to shrew to cow to me as me to me to me.

Or not. At 3, I was Shirley Temple, all long, bobbing curls and thick, red lips. At 6, we moved to America, my father, my mother and I, and in many ways we were all reborn but Shirley died; the crew-cut kids at my new kindergarten refused to accept the long-haired thing as a boy, so my “golden locks,” as I eulogize them, got the snip-snip. (Now that’s what I call an original sin.) Newly crowned with a Jewfro, I set out to recast myself as the Jewish immigrant of a century earlier — one of those huddled masses yearning to be free. Because, really, what could be more boring, more bureaucratic, than a 21st century migrant to Pittsburgh, fleeing inflation rather than pogroms? So I kept a journal, fashioning myself — as nice Jewish kids are maybe wont to do — as a survivor’s Anne Frank; inside the journal I scribbled nervously in what I imagined as the hushed, tenement-gray tones of an Ellis Island newcomer.

By around the age of 7, some testosterone must have kicked in, because that’s the age I started trotting around in circles as the self-appointed emperor of ancient Thailand, then China. For that, blame the “Eyewitness” book series, which were all the rage, and taught me everything I’ll ever need to know about ancient civilizations. For my next career — as a photographer in the Brazilian Amazon — blame National Geographic, whose monthly covers graced the walls of a bedroom I tried to remodel as a natural history museum.

Whitman and I, we contained multitudes. For those were brief, blazing lives — Shirley’s, the emperor’s, the photographer’s —  each invested with the full rage and earnestness of a bourgeois childhood. With each I must have seemed to my bemused parents a pioneer of childhood, a creative monster with schizophrenic tendencies. All children are. But these double lives, these imitative fantasies, occupy the purely personal realm; on the outside, my friends and I all shuttled around banally from tennis lessons to math tutoring, where we fumbled and stuttered and missed. Yet I secretly settled into my many personae the way I settle into dreams, these days still: exquisitely, perfectly abiding my mother’s instructions to “think good thoughts.” I nitpick and obsess over the details, counting not sheep but the furniture of my dreamscape.

* * *

By the time I got bar mitzvah’d at 13, it seemed like a golden age had passed. According to Jewish custom I now counted as a full-fledged, adult member of the community, but I felt unmoored — bobbing, like the kid in the raised chair of a Hora dance. I was working so hard to keep up with my gawky, pubertal body, or waiting so anxiously for the height spurt that never came, that it was literally impossible to escape myself and literally impossible to not want to try. In one of my favorite books, “The Book of Intimate Grammar” by the Israeli novelist David Grossman, a 12-year old obsesses over both his body and Harry Houdini, whose body famously escaped spaces. The boy imitates Houdini and escapes from refrigerators, boxes, cars — but these are just rehearsals for the big break: the escape from the body. So that was kind of how I felt, except I couldn’t imitate Houdini, or anyone for that matter. I was too old for that. And that was the problem.

The trouble with adolescence is that, once you’re bound within certain contours, you have to color inside the lines. Your identity spasms for a few years, and cruelly enough, it’s predictable. Everyone else might gripe and shriek about your teenage barbarities, but at the end of the day they trivialize your condition as angst. It hurts when adults laugh off adolescents as self-obsessed when, really, you’ve got no clue what your self looks like (or smells like, or sounds like). Not to mention that you invariably fumble at focusing your so-called “self” for long enough to be able to fixate on it.

Everyone saw my so-called “identity crisis” from miles away. I couldn’t decide whether I was Israeli or American, or both, or neither. It wouldn’t have killed me to label myself an American. I could have done it long ago. English came quickly to me, and the warm multicultural embrace of my classmates would have made for a quick, painless conversion. But I’ve always insisted on being different, and remaining Israeli in America was one way to do that.

So, as a child, I parroted what I took to be my Israeli cousins’ Israeli sensibilities. I religiously followed the Argentinean telenovelas that swept the Israeli ratings. By satellite, I tuned in to Israeli TV shows to pick up the latest slang or the gesticulatory semiotics of that gesticulatory culture. During the long, dry summers I spent on a kibbutz — a Zionist twist on your classic socialist commune, where I still romp around barefoot in green hills — I conjured up some cult out of the place, and followed blindly. It’s embarrassing, now, to recall myself affecting the place’s imagined virtues: socialist stolidity, pastoral humility and swashbuckling charm — of which, of course, I’ve been disillusioned one by one.

Because I’m relatively sane, I had to stop imitating what wasn’t there. That was rough, and caused me no shortage of teenage angst. It felt lonely, too, to stop mimicking what was there — my cousins and their mannerisms — but I had my pride, and it struck me as humiliating to ape people without really understanding them. Understanding is one of those hefty philosophical concepts that lends itself to bullshit, but it’s intuitive, really. The moment my cousins started trickling into the army, which is mandatory in Israel, was the moment it hit me that there was an unbridgeable gap between us. I’ve never held a gun, or mobilized for any cause much larger than myself — my selves.

Some things you just can’t imitate.

* * *

My brother came up to campus this past weekend. He lives in Israel, where, seven years after snipping off the dreadlocks, he’s practicing corporate law. But that’s a different story. Anyways, Eyal, as he’s known, flew into New York to take the ethics component of the bar exam (which, as my dad likes to point out, sounds like an oxymoron). After spending the morning filling in bubbles in some dank auditorium at Pace University, Eyal met up with my dad and the two hopped on the Metro-North to see me in my natural habitat.

My dad left for JFK before Eyal, so my brother and I spent a few hours walking around campus, just him and me, for the first time in years. You see, Eyal’s technically my half-brother, and he’s 13 years older than me, and we’ve spent most of the past 19 years living on different continents, so our impressions of each other are episodic. I know Eyal as a sequential stream of nouns — tennis champ, soldier, dreadlocked traveler, law student, married lawyer — and, being older, he probably remembers me more fluidly, but still as a pageantry of dress-up. Sunday, as we zigzagged our way up to the Divinity School, Eyal pointed out that I’d matured, because I seemed at ease with myself. As he heaped praise on what he’d seen of Yale — the students seemed so giddy, so poised — he observed that, maybe because of the atmosphere, I’d outgrown my erstwhile misanthropy. I seemed so comfortable in my own skin.

He was right in a way and wrong in others. It’s true that I’ve wrung all the proper clichés out of my time at Yale: I’ve made the best friends I’ve ever had — people with whom I seem to share a private language and an unabashed humor. They don’t begrudge me my long stretches of solitude and I try to not begrudge them theirs. I feel like I’m flourishing in a way that would have made Aristotle proud, not to mention my favorite high school teachers. Perhaps this is what it’s supposed to feel like to be Yuval Ben-David.

But it’s funny, because my friends and I spend long hours communicating by imitation, by constant comparison of ourselves — and of our circle — to other lives and other circles. The childhood bug has come back.

* * *

This spate of games is our current preoccupation: If we were characters in a TV show — “Weeds,” “Girls,” “The West Wing,” especially “West Wing” — which would we be and why? It sounds like a question from the back of some trashy magazine, but my friends and I take this seriously. I was actually a little hurt when the overwhelming consensus of friends (and eventually, of the strangers we started asking off the streets) pegged me as “The West Wing”’s Josh Lyman, the lovingly cocky deputy chief of staff. At first, I rationalized the pick — it’s because Josh and I both have curls, it’s because we’re both Jewish, I told myself — but eventually I embraced my double, and with him his negative baggage. It was easier being called “Josh Lyman” than being called out for cockiness. They’re the same thing, really, but one’s implicit and one’s explicit, and being called Josh instead of cocky suggests my friends see me past my flaws, as a total person. Nominating one another to “West Wing” look-alikes is cathartic; it’s a way of speaking about each other, sometimes furiously, in the most generous code.

Sometimes a game is just a game, and I don’t deny that ours has all the frivolousness of one of those freaky, buffet-style plastic surgeries, where people order up Angelina Jolie’s nose and Scarlett Johansson’s eyelids and Megan Fox’s breasts. A great deal of narcissistic indulgence motivates our banter about who’s who and which character we want to be. I’d like to say that we deploy imitation for entirely different reasons than we did in childhood, but at the end of the day it’s still a means to self-reinvention.

But something’s different. Something’s new. I recently wrote a midterm paper on the postmodern condition, how it’s all about simulacrum, or the representation of things that don’t exist — copies with no original. Think video games, or life-size architectural models that replace the real thing. At Yale, we stress a lot about our futures. Whether they’re there, waiting for us. Whether they’re original, or we’re just hipsters. Our dreams are copies with no original in sight. In a funny, postmodern kind of way, maybe imitating Josh Lyman, or Hannah Horvath, or even Hannah Montana, for that matter, is one way of testing out our uncertain potentialities. Maybe it’s healthy. We’re not erasing ourselves, or replacing ourselves with other people. We’re just gingerly looking ahead.

Let’s face it. It’s hard to dream big about our futures when there’s no time to dream. Few of us take gap years to trek around and soul-search. The Kerouacs are long gone; they’re too busy rushing from one achievement to the next. Our lives are such stiffened facts; they are so consciously narrative arcs — “timelines,” as Facebook tells us — that we cut ourselves no slacks in the cords from one stage of life to the next. The common gripe about contemporary life is that we lose intimacy with each other — “hooking up” takes on too many meanings — but really we lose intimacy with ourselves. Because our profiles are always in front of us, and in front of everyone else, we lose that self-pleasuring, sophomoric power to look in the mirror by ourselves: to dwell on who we are, and change it. To get comfortable enough in our skins and admit there’s room for improvement.

To do that, maybe we need to pretend someone else is in our skin.

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